The Noncon Redux…
Most of this is a straight repeat from Saturday's post that summed up the VCU nonconference season. However I felt today it bears a quick update and repeat. You see, the nonconference schedule resulted in the Rams entering its inaugural A10 season ranked #24 in the nation in the coaches poll.
I'd say that validates a few things, so I dusted the text, updated it, and re-present.
Time for the A10 season. Here we go.
How far from your
memory is last year's six-point white-knuckler over a bad St. Francis
team in the home opener? Or the dreadful trip to Charleston? Perhaps you
reserved a special place in your stress cabinet for the six-point
exhale at VMI two seasons ago. Or losing, in a very ugly fashion, to UAB
Maybe it's giving up a double-digit lead to Western
Michigan and losing by 16 early in the 2009-2010 season that serves as
your Maalox Moment. No? Well the 2008-09 loss to a fairly bad East
Carolina team will suffice. Or losing to Hampton in November of the year
Notice an early-season trend for VCU basketball? Sputtery play is the norm.
year, the RamNation is gnashing its collective teeth at a narrow loss to #1
ranked Duke. A two-point loss to Wichita State, who hovers on the fringes of the top 25. And a three-point
loss to top 10 Missouri.
The closest escape: last Saturday's 59-55 gripper over Lehigh, followed by the 13-point win over 17th-ranked Memphis, or the 13-point snoozer over Old Dominion.
Notice the difference?
For all its February and March brilliance, VCU has, historically,
been a November chemistry experiment; more Frankenstein plodding down
city streets being chased by citizens with fiery torches than Roger
Federer whipping a cross-court passing shot.
Not this year. The Rams have begun building the havoc swell earlier, and more devastating, than in any previous season.
The numbers are, quite frankly, hilarious. The Rams lead the nation is steals and turnovers.
But this isn't about numbers. I'm
here to say that the VCU nonconference schedule, from a strategic
standpoint, was built perfectly. Think about it.
The Rams had a closed scrimmage against an ACC team. Then an
exhibition against a D2 team. VCU opened the regular season with a
tune-up against a FGCU team with a loosey-goosey sophomore point guard.
You can liken that stretch to starting your car after it's been sitting
in the driveway for three weeks. There's some crud, but she starts and
the engine roars.
A tough Valley team in Wichita State followed, but at home. We found
out the Shockers were tougher than we expected–a very good learning
experience about judging things on face value. After that it was off to
the Bahamas to play three ranked teams.
Now, it was absolutely critical to get that first win over Memphis.
Number one, it erased the WSU downer. Number two, it set up the next two
games and their strength. Number three, it showed how well the team can
play when it plays together. Atlantis was a test–the ideal test when
you're trying to figure out who you are.
Back home there was the get-back-into-comfy Stetson game; then
winnable but tough games, two played at
home (Belmont, Alabama) with a semi-roadie at Old Dominion. I say
semi-roadie because a 90-minute bus ride isn't really a "road trip."
It's more of a "road game." There is a difference.
And then three home games over exams and the holiday followed by an
actual road trip to ETSU. All four games were checkbox wins to help build
confidence and refine the things the players and coaches learned over
the early weeks of the season.
The final nonconference game against
Lehigh was also winnable, but it increased the level of competition in the arc
towards conference season. It was against a very good offensive team–a test for havoc. Every coach will tell you they like to
learn lessons in victories, and that's exactly how this coaching staff
set the schedule up.
Finally, it was at home, and so is the conference
opener. I don't know if that was luck or planned, but the players don't
have to worry about immediate travel when switching gears for conference
season–in a new conference.
Here's what happened along the way. The Rams learned they can survive
with someone other than Darius Theus handling the basketball. Briante
Weber has showed nobody has to cringe–well not as much anyway–when he
handles the ball. Juvonte Reddic played aggressively through adversity.
Melvin Johnson played significant and meaningful minutes. Rob
Brandenberg began playing basketball with a scowl on his face. Suddenly,
even though it isn't sudden, VCU can go 10 deep with little dropoff in
The team was able to find out individual strengths and weaknesses, as
well as those same benchmarks as a team. Skills and chemistry
developed. There was physical and mental growth. All of this occurred,
shall we say, in all kinds of weather. There was learning and growth in
good times and tough times. Importantly, it shined a flashlight on those
attributes that still require work.
The sum: this team has created an identity. Shaka Smart's teams are
renowned for their growth over the course of the season, playing their
best basketball in March. However for years it's come from humble
This year, the high quality play is way ahead of schedule, and
there's still room to grow. How this nonconference schedule was created
plays a big hand in that because it paved the road to learn and develop.
It gave this team the opportunity to accomplish and learn through both
wins and losses.
Shaka Smart mentioned in the locker that one aspect of this team's toughness is because they adopted the approach of "do not
accept in winning what you would not accept in losing."
And now that Lehigh has left town, the stakes dramatically change. Personally, I like where we are.